Saturday, November 3, 2007

Free Speech and Profanity

There are a lot of people who believe that profanity should be protected by free speech. I happen to disagree, but I also disagree that it should fail to have the protection of free speech. This seeming contradiction is due to my own belief in something else that democracy has to offer: freedom of choice.

If you don't like what someone is saying, you always have the right to shut them off, to go somewhere else, to ignore them, or to confront them. The idea that mere words, though vulgar or obscene, should be limited because they are offensive flies in the face of the principle of free speech. While I disagree with shouting a string of obscenities for the sake of shouting them, I think people who are really angry should be able to shout vulgarities in their speech, if only to express the emotional impact that a particular topic has had on them. In addition to showing a person's emotional state, vulgarities show a state of mentality, and such mentality can attract like-minded individuals or repel those who disagree. Society must police itself if it wants to eliminate the vulgar, not rely on the laws of government to restrict the right to cuss.

I swear sometimes, I'll admit it. Many people who read the foregoing believe that I'm in favor of swearing. I'm not. I'm simply against the idea that government should be involved in its abolition. The appropriate use of swearing is to shock people to their senses by using a strong word. Take "balderdash" for example. Balder was a god from the Nordic pantheon, way back before the Christians converted everyone in Europe by force. Balder was impervious to harm because Balder's mom extracted a promise from everything in the world. Everything, that is, except for Mistletoe, which was considered an unimportant tree parasite... and since dear old mom had already asked the Oak trees on which mistletoe grows, it was thought to extend. But then old Loki came along, trickster god that he was, and made an arrow out of the stuff. Meanwhile, the other gods were busy throwing rocks and shooting arrows made of things like oak and aspen at Balder. It was a great trick, watching inanimate objects uphold their promises to do no harm to the God of Beauty and Courtesy. But the blind god, Forseti, felt left out of the fun.

A woman named Bestla came up and offered Forseti a shot at Balder with a bow and arrow. Forseti protested on account of the fact that he was blind. Bestla offered to aim the arrow for him, so that he could be sure to aim it right at Balder. He agreed, and she did, and the arrow flew... and struck Balder right in the heart, killing him instantly. The shock and outrage that flew throughout the courtyard called for Forseti's death, and then Bestla's. But Bestla was not her real name. Her real name was Loki, and she'd tricked Forseti by having him shoot an arrow made of mistletoe right into Balder's heart. Mistletoe is therefore called balderdash. How it came to be used for kissing under is related, but not important to the point I'm trying to convey. But the cuss word from the 1800's implied so much more than that.

The word in the 1800's implied nonsense, but it also implied that someone or something was parasitic in nature. It further implied that this parasitic nature was the cause of all evils and ills, not just the immediate problem, and that whomever had suggested the item which caused the utterance of that horrifically obscene word was about to kill God. The word was not used in polite society. The closest word we have today has less implied, far less background, and a more crude direct meaning. That word is "bullshit".

However, in the 1800's, balderdash was considered much more offensive of a word, because it required a knowledge of its background and how it came to be in order to be offended. But in the American West, it fell from disfavor and was replaced by "bullshit" as the choice for swearing, particularly because male bovine excrement was actually pretty well everywhere. Mistletoe wasn't. Therefore, in the absence of familiarity with what mistletoe even is, we stopped using a swear word. Ironically, the word fuck is used today as a catch-all swear word in almost exactly the same way, though with an entirely different background and meaning.

The point is, obscene words change with culture. Laws generally do not. Old laws don't often get reviewed and thrown out with the trash. Even bad laws which hold no relevance to modern culture and which are often the target of ridicule are rarely removed. And bad laws exist, as do laws which are poorly worded. Laws that try to limit obscene materials and fail miserably can often attribute that failure with a lack of familiarity with that material. It's a conundrum: either you review it so you can be well-informed, and possibly violate your personal principles in the process; or you don't review it and make a law which may be irrelevant the moment it passes into law.

There isn't a really great solution, except possibly to ask people who are familiar with it about whether or not it would stop it. Those who are familiar with it and still against it can often tell you. And if there's nobody familiar with it who is against it, then what you have is a perfect product, and it deserves investment instead of restriction.

Obscenity laws, especially where they relate to language, just don't make sense. Laws that restrict nudity to artistic exhibits make more sense than removing nudity altogether. We're born naked, and nudity is a natural state of being. There is nothing wrong with the display of the human body for purposes of art. I've personally attended a viewing of the Statue of David. I'm a guy, and I certainly have no homosexual leanings, but that's a body I think I'd kill to have. Well, maybe after just a few more cheeseburgers...

Likewise, artistic expression that contains offensive words should be labeled as such. I'm not against labeling something to prevent unintended offense. However, there are times when we need to be offended. I myself get offended on a regular basis. I had a neighbor, recently, who told me that if he accepted my hospitality, he'd be disrespecting himself. I found myself wondering if he had a habit of refusing hospitality, or if he simply didn't like me. And then several negative implications of what he said hit me. I was incensed. He later asked me for my hospitality, which, rather than extending again, I declined to extend, politely pointing out that his rude statement didn't sit well with me, though I didn't mind him visiting. I didn't swear. I didn't need to. My simple statement said it all.

If people are taught correct principles, they tend to use them. One of the principles I was taught was tolerance, and another was patience. I was patient, in that I didn't blow up. I felt angry and offended, but I was patient enough so that my refusal had its full impact. And I was tolerant, because while we disagreed and there were consequences, he is still free to believe what he will about the comment that was made. No law needed. No obscenity required. See? Social values work. Tolerance doesn't mean allowance. It means limitation of allowance. It's another one of those fundamental principles of democracy, whether in our country or another.

Swearing is unpleasant. It's supposed to be. It expresses an emotional impact that those with limited vocabularies and limited time to formulate a concrete idea can use in order to achieve the same results as my long-winded speech. All of the above was summed up by a friend of mine:

"Laws against swearing are bullshit. They don't fucking need to exist."

And that, as they say, is that.

My next post is going to be about a topic we all love to argue about: religious freedom in the US. Those of you with strong opinions on the subject, prepare arms for my comment box: I'm not about to pull any punches. I'm religious, proud of the fact, and pissed off at the zealots who think it's fun to say that everyone
else is going to Hell. I'm going to bring my Bible, Torah, Koran, Baghavad-Gita, Tao te Ching, Poetic Edda, and the Upanishads. It'll be fun, I promise... well, not for everyone, I'm sure. I also plan to bring rational denial to the table, which is more popularly known as atheism. I'm no atheist, but those who fail to listen to them (or any other religious group... yes, calling atheists a religious group pisses off a lot of people) is going to be limiting.

That article will also be about diversity, racism, intolerance, and maintenance of group identity. I'm gonna slam people. Well, politely. Until next time!